A nice, gentle family film for nice, gentle families, David Oyelowo’s The Water Man is a light, slight adventure in which the observations about children’s creativity, grief and carpe-ing the diem are mild, and the magic-realist perils faced by our appealing pre-teen hero even milder. Its sincerity and solidity are never in doubt — the actor’s directorial career is certainly off to a clean-lined, competent start. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the sort of film that fond parents wish their children would love, as opposed to a film their children actually will love. It’s the aesthetically unobjectionable wooden toy that polite kids dutifully thank their aunts for on their birthdays, before running off to play with some bright hunk of plastic that shoots lasers from its eyes.
Noble intentions are announced from the start, with camera moves so soft they’re practically on tiptoes introducing the splendidly named 11-year-old Gunner Boone (This Is Us‘ Lonnie Chavis) and his beloved but clearly ailing mother Mary (Rosario Dawson). Rounded out by his father Amos (Oyelowo), who recently returned from a tour of duty in Japan, the Boone family are new arrivals in Pine Mills, a logging town in the Pacific Northwest and the kind of place where, as Amos points out, even the Chinese restaurant only plays country music. Gunner has a strained relationship with his dad; he spends his days exploring the new surroundings on his lonesome, buzzing around on his electric foot-scooter and — in the tradition of sensitive, imaginative, fictional children — befriending the local bookseller. She keeps him stocked with Sherlock Holmes tales and other classic detective fiction, all the better to help the talented young artist out with the graphic novel he’s working on at home.
But when the gravity of his mother’s illness can no longer be concealed from Gunner, the boy trades in his storybooks for “every book you have on leukemia.” It’s in the pages of one of these tomes that he finds strange marginalia referring to the local legend of the Water Man. This is not a reference to some potential sequel to the 1998 Adam Sandler hit The Waterboy, but to a much less terrifying prospect: A wild boogeyman who lives in the woods and has found the secret of immortality. That last part snags Gunner’s interest — could this save his mom? No sooner has he got background on the phenom from the grouchy neighborhood undertaker (Alfred Molina) than Gunner is grabbing Dad’s ornamental samurai sword as protection, and bribing local tough-girl Jo (Amiah Miller), who claims to have encountered the Water Man in the flesh, to be his guide into the forest.
Once they’re there, Emma Needell’s Black Listed screenplay hits a rhythmic, predictable stride with moments of danger — charging horses, bugs, slippery river crossings — alternating with light bonding sessions that remain just the right side of sentimental, courtesy of the merciful underplaying of both the juvenile leads. Meanwhile, Gunner’s frantic parents bring in the police, led by Mario Bello’s chief, to try to find their missing son just as, in the film’s most potentially fertile twist, a forest fire breaks out. The boy mistakes the falling ash for semi-miraculous July snow, which must be a sign that this quest for the supernatural is on the right track.
With Oyelowo’s thespian bona fides, it’s not surprising he secured such a fine cast; it is surprising, however, that he gives actors as fine as Bello and Molina so very little acting to do. Both are underused and, aside from one scene where Bello’s law-enforcement officer fixes Jo’s abusive father with a Paddington-worthy Hard Stare, they never have more than one note to play at any given time. (The same goes for Dawson as the preternaturally giving and forgiving Mary.) Oyelowo’s own small role is probably the best drawn in this regard; at least Amos sometimes gets things wrong and has spasms of doubt over his fathering skills. The actor’s charisma is such that he can reach into even the tritest dialogue and pull out something moving.
It’s progressive, in a restrained way, to make the story so little about race when Gunner’s family is black and his reluctant playmate Jo, as well as seemingly everyone else is in this town, is white. The few racial-prejudice inferences, such as Jo’s horrible father saying that Gunner is “not the kind of friend” his daughter would have, are never particularly pointed, as the drama is one of universal childhood aspirations and fears that simply happens, refreshingly, to be mediated through a black protagonist. But then very little in The Water Man is pointed, from the glimmery score to the carefully poised photography. There are no sharp edges here — even the samurai sword, which seems destined for some dramatic symbolic purpose, is rarely unsheathed, with its chief victim being a tin of cling peaches.
Perhaps The Water Man would be more impactful were it not for its fluffed ending that, in its deliberate embrace of the real over the fantastical, is sensible and goodhearted and teaches only the most unimpeachably correct lessons. It is also pretty dull, though it may hit a sweet spot with some younger kids, i.e. those done with The Berenstain Bears but not yet initiated into the more grandiose dramas of the Potterverse. For everyone outside that window, however, the lack of real atmospherics, and genuine awe or peril, makes this episodic journey feel small-scale and small-screen. The abiding image one has of the audience for this well-meaning, earnest, cautious film is not of a grand afternoon out at the pictures, but of a family gathered around the living room TV, parents watching along mostly for the sake of the kids, while the kids — the nicer ones anyway — watch along mostly for the sake of their parents.